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Organizations offering employee assistance programs need to step up their inclusion strategies to help employees feel safe.agrobacter

Have you ever accessed an EAP?

A benefit offered through some workplaces, EAPs – or employee assistance programs – offer short-term, confidential counselling services to employees. These programs, which can be administered through video, phone, online chat, e-mail or face-to-face interaction, offer no-cost services related to managing personal difficulties, workplace stress, substance misuse, family conflict and more.

With Canadians experiencing higher rates of mental health challenges through the COVID-19 pandemic amidst ongoing strains in the health care system, EAPs could be a valuable option for individuals in need of help. The only problem? Those who could benefit from EAPs may not be taking advantage of them.

Ivona Hideg is an associate professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business specializing in organization studies. She says a key benefit of EAPs is the accessibility they offer – but their reach needs to be broadened.

“Traditionally what we see with employee assistance programs is they are not very well taken up,” she says. “It’s one of those benefits that [companies] do invest in and pay for, but it’s totally unused.”

According to a 2016 survey of 1,500 group health benefit plan holders by Sanofi Canada, the average utilization rate of EAPs was just 11 per cent.

Dr. Hideg says one significant reason for this low uptake is lack of communication on the part of companies, with not enough being shared about the program to convey “that it exists, why it exists and how it can be accessed.”

Even once employees are made aware of the program’s existence, getting help for mental health challenges and personal difficulties can be complicated by preconceived notions and stigma.

Fear of discrimination or stereotyping

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, data from 2016 indicated that 47 per cent of working Canadians considered work to be the most stressful part of their lives. However, only 23 per cent of workers surveyed would feel comfortable speaking to their employer about a psychological health issue they were experiencing.

In the context of EAPs, employees might fear that supervisors could find out and judge their usage of mental health services, jeopardizing their position or advancement opportunities.

Joanna Carroll, chief administrative officer of Toronto-based digital health care solutions company Think Research, says stigma continues to be a barrier when it comes to accessing resources like EAPs.

“Certainly, I’ve seen a positive trend, with barriers breaking down,” she says. “But as the stigma dissipates, it is not gone.”

This already-difficult experience can be further complicated for those in underrepresented groups.

“Employees of different backgrounds, for example, racialized individuals, may be less likely to access these services,” Dr. Hideg says. “They may be concerned about potential discrimination or stereotyping, depending on who is running this program.”

Reimagining company culture

As an in-house human resources professional, Ms. Carroll says HR teams and operations teams need to find ways to break down barriers when introducing EAPs.

“Thoughtful, prepared communication to the employees is key,” she says. “Being able to instill a sense of confidence to talk about the widespread need for this [and] letting employees know that employers are aware of that and are sensitive to it is important.”

Creating a culture that supports employee wellbeing is crucial in helping reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues, says Julie McCarthy, a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

“This needs to occur at all levels and through all strategies, but a large component is through training and leadership,” she says. “Some organizations have wellness initiatives where senior leaders sit on a panel and share personal stories of burnout and resilience. These are accompanied by employee training to promote wellness.”

When offering EAPs to a diverse workforce, Dr. Hideg says the company’s outreach must include a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) that goes beyond just words.

“Make sure that these counsellors are offering EDI-sensitive approaches to solving issues – that you have a diverse workforce to begin with, and diverse counsellors as well,” she says.

Needed more than ever

Though stigma and fear of judgment may persist, Dr. Hideg says it’s important for organizations to continue offering resources such as EAPs for their employees.

“With COVID, it became very obvious that it’s very hard to separate work from personal life,” she says. “So, I would say that organizations do have a social responsibility to tackle this.”

At Think Research, Ms. Carroll says her team has had numerous conversations about how to create an environment where employees feel comfortable accessing an EAP. Potential strategies include hosting town halls with employees, sharing success stories and outlining the ease of access.

In April 2020, the company introduced its EAP for the first time, and Ms. Carroll says it was a resounding success.

“No benefit we’ve offered received such accolades and gratitude from employees than the introduction of the Employee Assistance Program,” she says.

“Sometimes, you take silence as gratitude when you implement new things or you offer new benefits. [But] our employees have never been so vocal as they were when we introduced it.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at

Question: I want to ask my boss for a raise. I’ve been with the company for three years and feel I’ve earned it. However, I’ve heard from colleagues in the office that there are no merit raises happening right now. How should I go about asking for a salary boost?

We asked Melissa Sumnauth, resilience coach and partner at BIPOC Executive Search in Toronto, to field this one:

When it comes to a conversation like this, I like to think about what you can do before, during and after.

Before you ask your employer for a raise, make a list of your proudest accomplishments during your time at the organization. Personally, I like to maintain a bit of a brag file. Every week I have a reflection moment where I think about the things that have gone well at work. Sometimes I do a voice recording, sometimes it’s a document that I drag and drop into my brag folder. If you haven’t been doing that regularly, take some stock of your accomplishments in year one, year two and year three of your job.

Think about those accomplishments in terms of what we call the CARE model: context, activities, results and evaluation. What was the context of this accomplishment? What were the activities you performed? What were the results and how was it evaluated? There’s a certain arc when you’re sharing a proud accomplishment in this way – it can be really powerful to help the other person follow along.

When you go into the meeting to ask for a raise, you want to be in a place of confidence, of owning your power. That might mean doing a breathing exercise or mini meditation before the meeting. It might mean going for a walk or listening to your favourite song list, because we all know that when we approach something from a place of confidence, the trajectory of those conversations tends to go well.

Another tip: In these kinds of higher-stakes environments, our core body temperature can go up and we can get flustered. So, have a glass of ice-cold water nearby during the conversation. If you’re virtual, you can touch your wrist to the glass during the meeting. If you’re in person, you can take a sip or two to keep yourself feeling cool and confident.

After the conversation, send a note to your boss saying something like, ‘I really appreciate you taking the time to consider this. I’m looking forward to your thoughts in relation to our conversation.’ Recognize that they now have something to chew on, and it’s important to give them some space to consider their response.

Then, if you haven’t heard back in about a week, that’s the time to say, ‘Hey, can we have a 15-minute touch-base chat?’ I like a 10- to 15-minute chunk because it doesn’t eat up too much time in the calendar, but you’ll still be able to get the answer that you need.

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